WHAT'S IN A NAME, WOULD A FLUKE TASTE AS SWEET?
Flounder is a favorite saltwater target. It’s fun to catch, delicious to eat, and it is fairly common along the Atlantic coast and around the Gulf of Mexico. What only the most avid anglers know is that there are more than one species- Fluke vs. Flounder, Summer vs. Winter, Southern vs. Northern – it can be difficult to tell which one you have on the line. Let’s decode the various names of these tasty bottom dwellers and add some tips for their catching. Let’s start with this- Fluke is Flounder. Fluke is another name for Summer Flounder, a large, predatory species of Flatfish. The reason people get confused is because Winter Flounder live in the same place. So how do you tell them apart?
The basics are that Fluke face left while Winter Flounder face right. Flounder have adapted to a life on the bottom. This adaptation results in the migration of one eye across their head as they get older, until both eyes are on the same side of their face. Fluke are “left-facing,” meaning that when you hold one up, their head will be in your left hand when their eyes are above their mouth. Winter Flounder are the opposite (“right-facing”). Noting this difference may be easy when you are holding the fish but when they are in the water? Winter Flounder are darker than Summer Flounder. Winter Flounder can look almost black – some call them “Blackback”. Summer Flounder are light brown with cream or whitish spots. When on the bottom, both can adapt to their surrounding so observing the head is the surest way to tell them apart.
You are thinking that it’s not so difficult. Well, it is more complicated with regard to Southern Flounder. Southern Flounder look similar to Fluke- same size and color and the head points the same way. How do you tell them apart? Summer Flounder have three ringed, eye-like spots near their tail, and several more on their back. Southern Flounder have dark patches instead, as if someone forgot to put the spots on them. Southern Flounder, Fluke, and Winter Flounder all live on the US East Coast. Southern Flounder are the only species found in the Gulf. They rarely are found north of Virginia. Winter Flounder are rarely found south of there. Fluke overlap with both but are rarely found south of Georgia. The best part of all this? They all taste great!
Fluke/Summer Flounder are especially abundant in waters from North Carolina to Massachusetts. In addition to their ocular and color adaptations, they are capable of rapidly burrowing into muddy or sandy bottoms. They have teeth that are quite sharp on both jaws. The average summer flounder weighs 1 to 3 pounds and is typically 15 to 20 inches in length, but anglers are more interested in those that grow as large as 26 pounds. Fortunately for fishermen, fluke are highly predatory, often lying buried to ambush prey which includes sand lance, menhaden, Atlantic silverside, killifish, small bluefish, porgies, squid, shrimp, and crabs. They are rapid swimmers over short distances and can become very aggressive, feeding actively at mid-depths, even chasing prey to the surface.
In the spring months fluke leave their winter stay in the deep ocean waters, where spawning occurs, to move into the inshore waters along beaches, inlets, bays, estuaries, canals, and creeks where they will stay until autumn or even early winter. Flounder are caught in the surface, but the bigger fish are more consistently caught while drifting on a boat using a wide variety of live or cut baits on a bottom rig, artificial lures, and jigs tipped with strip baits or soft plastics.
What kind of gear do you need, you ask? A medium semi-fast 7-foot bait casting rod with a small baitcasting reel is best for fishing from a
boat. It allows you to quickly adjust to changes in the bottom depth. If you use braid as your base, use a long leader- at least three feet of between plus minus 12-14 pound test, which is small enough to be somewhat invisible, and large enough to handle other larger species (like a big skate or ray) that may take the bait. If you want to use spinning gear, think about a 7 ft drop shot rod and reel. You can buy standard flounder rigs at any tackle shop. These typically include a 4/0-circle hook on a 15 inch 30 lb. test monofilament leader. The leader is tied to a trolling sinker, and the sinker is tied to the line. Sinker shapes vary so ask for ones good for dragging across the bottom. Weight will vary according to conditions. You want to be able to keep contact with the bottom so have a variety of sizes. When it comes to lures, the over under fluke rig with a jig or bucktail jig acting as the weight and a teaser on top is a proven winner. Adding a soft plastic, strip bait or Gulp trailer will definitely help. Gulp is very popular. Epoxy jigs are also effective similarly tipped. Ask your local tackle shop what size and color have been most successful in the area you fish. Offshore wrecks and reef structure are good places to start your fishing.
Because the summer flounder is considered the most important flounder along the Atlantic coast, especially to the commercial fishing industry, recreational charters, party boats, and bait and tackle stores, there has been much debate and concern over summer flounder
populations. As a result, state and federal governments have imposed recreational size and creel regulations which vary from state to state. As usual when it comes to these regs, check out the websites for the fisheries you plan to fish so you can Know Before You Go, and avoid any problems.